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Mayor Steve Adler on meeting the challenges of 2021

Tuesday, July 20, 2021 by Jo Clifton

The city and its leaders have faced multiple challenges in the past 16 months: Covid-19, homelessness, Winter Storm Uri and the failure of the Texas power grid, and the Texas Legislature’s continuing attempts to limit the choices Austin and other cities have in raising and spending tax dollars.

Mayor Steve Adler sat down with the Austin Monitor last week to talk about those challenges and how the city is handling them.

With the number of hospitalizations and positive cases rising dramatically once again in Austin and other locales, Covid-19 remains at the top of Adler’s list of immediate concerns. But it’s not the kind of problem that new regulations can do much to address. More than 70 percent of adults in Travis County have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Adler points out that the majority of people hospitalized with Covid are unvaccinated. While he applauded the decision by Waterloo Records to require customers to start wearing masks again while inside the store, he said the city cannot enforce its way out of this problem.

For Adler and his colleagues on City Council, homelessness is an issue they must address and they have called on the federal government, Travis County, and a variety of charitable foundations to help solve the problem.

As a result of the passage of Proposition B, which reinstated the ban on public camping, people are prohibited from camping in many areas, which means that in some instances they will simply move to a more discreet location. On Monday, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey and Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley said in a news release that staff members are actively pursuing steps to prepare two sites for City Council to consider installing temporary prefabricated structures for the homeless. One site is at 3511 Manor Road in East Austin, and the second is at 4011 Convict Hill Road in Southwest Austin.

“If you define the crisis as, ‘I see homelessness and I don’t want to see it,’ I suspect we won’t see it as much … but the people don’t disappear,” Adler said. “So the crisis still exists for that person. This is a city that needs to do better than that. It’s not a question of whether we see it or not – if it’s here, we really need to get those people into places where they can sustain their lives in a healthy way … which means more than established sanctioned camping areas.”

Austin has committed to spending $106 million of federal American Rescue Plan funds to reach the goal of housing 3,000 homeless residents in the next three years. But that’s not enough. Adler expects the entire program will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $515 million. The request is out there and Adler is hopeful. At this point, he said the city needs about $200 million more than what it can provide in addition to federal housing funds. He expects to hear back from the various groups in the next four to six weeks about how much they can provide.

If the city can raise and spend the money appropriately in the next four to five years, Adler said, we can be where Houston is, spending just $18,000 on housing each homeless person in the community.

If Austin does not solve the problem, “We’ll be where Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles are now in six to eight years,” Adler said. What that means is a city surrounded by homeless camps, not the long-term shelter needed to move people from homelessness to being housed and having a better life. “We have to build out the structure and the system. … That will allow us to reach the equilibrium of homelessness in our city, where you can get to the place where you’re housing people at the same rate as they show up on your streets experiencing homelessness.”

He points out that the city reached that goal with veterans, and was moving toward equilibrium with homeless children when the pandemic struck.

But homeless residents are not the only ones who need help with housing. Adler said Council needs to address elements in the previously proposed Land Development Code. That needs to happen in order to increase density along the corridors. Even though the price of housing has shot up recently, Adler said Austin’s prices for other goods are among the lowest in the nation’s big cities. He predicted that Project Connect will help with affordability by allowing some people to get around without cars. But that’s not going to happen tomorrow.

The mayor suggested that the permitting process needs to be streamlined, particularly for affordable housing. That’s not a new idea. Although Council is not in charge of the departments, he suggested that there should be better integration of inspectors from the various departments, including Austin Energy, Austin Water and the Austin Fire Department, with the Development Services Department.

Another change Adler would like to see is for the city to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units. Staff members have recommended that change, but it will take Council action for it to happen.

Violent crime is up nationwide, including in Austin. Although the city faces challenges, Adler pointed out that Austin is still one of America’s safest big cities. And while some people said Council took $150 million out of policing last year, that is not true. Some money was moved around, but the same people are doing the same work as they were doing before. That includes the 911 call center and the forensics lab. Last year, Council voted to move those two divisions out of the Austin Police Department. But in order to comply with state legislation, those divisions are being moved back into APD.

Despite whatever challenges the city may face, Adler said Austin is still “a magical place.” Some people lose sight of that, “when we talk about our challenges.” But Adler meets with mayors from all over the country and “almost all of them would switch places with our city, in terms of the things that our city has. But you don’t hear that from our state leadership.”

“You would think that with the city like Austin that has the lowest unemployment rate of any of the big cities, that creates more jobs than all but one or two big cities in the country, a city that in many ways is responsible for some of the statewide numbers that state leadership tout, a city that’s able to attract the Teslas, apparently the Samsungs if I read the media reports correctly, and the Oracles, and the Army Futures Command – the city that does all of those things would be a city that our governor and our state leadership would be lifting up and encouraging and trying to leverage. If we were a city that was last in unemployment and people were fleeing us and if we weren’t one of the safest big cities in the country,” he might be able to understand why we’re getting this kind of state intervention. “But that’s not the case.”

City Council will hold two public hearings on the city budget, on July 22 and July 29. Budget adoption is scheduled for Aug. 11-13. Adler said the timeline was moved up because of a new state law limiting municipal property tax increases to 3.5 percent except with voter approval. Although City Manager Spencer Cronk did not propose raising taxes more than 3.5 percent and Adler said he did not expect Council to do so, budget adoption has been moved to August for the foreseeable future.

Adler said he expects the city will have to have such an election every few years in order to keep up with cost drivers, because 3.5 percent is not enough to do that.

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